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How to Read a Folktale

2. How to Read Ibonia: Folkloric Restatement

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1How shall a text so foreign be read, understood, or appreciated? I discovered one path in the library of what was then called the Université de Madagascar, where I was a visiting professor in 1975–1976. On the shelves I found, unexpectedly, quantities of available, published knowledge about Malagasy folklore. The university library and national library held scores of texts, unanalysed, uninterpreted. These called out to me. Faced by so many tales, riddles, proverbs, beliefs, customs, so much folklore to think about, I devised a way of reading the pieces. I decided to read the poems and stories, and even the ethnographic observations on them, as if they were the scripts of plays — as if I could hear them being performed by a living voice. I call this method “folkloric restatement”, meaning reading a printed text and imagining it in performance. Others have discovered the method independently. For instance, the Swedish folklorist Ulf Palmenfelt dug into archive material to reconstruct imaginatively an interview between a nineteenth-century researcher and his aged informant. That is the method I suggest to readers of this book. Imagine a performer, an audience, and a social setting: adults and children sitting around under a tree in the evening. That is how folklore is communicated — through performance. History, seen in print, comes to life through folkloric restatement. Maybe it’s no more than an intense, self-serving kind of eavesdropping, but how else will we gain any sense of the reality of artistic communication?2

2Ibonia is one piece among the thousands of items of Madagascar’s folklore. A definition of folklore widely accepted today is by Dan Ben-Amos: artistic communication in small groups. That definition prompts the researcher to pay attention to performance. The approach grew out of the work of the linguistic anthropologist Dell Hymes, under the influence of the sociologist Erving Goffman among others. It has been formulated and developed by Richard Bauman. The object of folkloristic study is people’s cultural practices studied at close range. Goffman, for instance, studying human interactions closely, saw them as if they were dramas, with characters and prearranged scripts. Folklorists like Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett transposed this model into close observation of the telling of a story; she showed the storyteller and audience to be characters in their own drama, which took place beyond the mere words of the storyteller. This was a new matrix, or “paradigm”, for the discipline of folkloristics: performance. Formerly, folktales were studied as texts fixed in writing; now, artists, audiences, and texts were envisioned in a new configuration. Performance folklorists turned upside down the old search for songs and stories as things. Instead of studying texts, they scrutinised moments of social interaction. They stopped trying to explain a particular story as a variant of some hypothetical original. Variation became the norm. What performance theory has to explain is fixity, the absence of variation. Literary studies do not face this problem. Ibonia exists in variant forms; one is translated here — one text.


2 You can also listen to a recitation of my earlier translation of Ibonia at


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